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Classical Music

The unheard violinist

Recalling a master never recorded in his prime

Berlioz fawned over Joachim, calling him 'so brilliant, and so pure.' Berlioz fawned over Joachim, calling him "so brilliant, and so pure." (w. and d. downey/getty images)

Composers of any era can be immortalized through their scores, but posterity is not as kind to performers who lived before the advent of recordings. The Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim was arguably the most important fiddle player of the 19th century, and Aug. 15 will mark the 100th anniversary of his death. But don't worry if you've made other plans and can't attend the centenary tributes. There are virtually none, at least not in this country. Almost no one seems to have remembered.

As a soloist and chamber musician, Joachim (1831-1907) looms large in the annals of music history. He was a player of surpassing integrity, revered by audiences and critics for his "organ-like tone" and the "quiet grandeur" of his performances, as well as for a stunning technique that could elicit gasps from his listeners, in the words of one reviewer, "as though the bow were playing on their spinal cords." His artistry inspired some of the most important works in the violin literature; he was a protege of Mendelssohn's and forged close friendships with Robert and Clara Schumann, and with Brahms. Today, he is well known to students of 19th-century culture, but he has slipped almost entirely from the memory of the broader concert-going public. If his name is recognized, it is as the author of brilliant cadenzas to various violin concertos, duly footnoted on concert programs.

So, in light of this centennial silence, it is worth taking a moment to recall the man who, as string players go, was the father of us all, the spiritual patriarch of the modern violin. Joachim distilled and refined the inheritance of the grand 19th century and delivered it to the doorstep of the 20th. Before his rise to fame, Paganini was the most popular violinist, the archetypal virtuoso-as-magician who often penned his own music in order to achieve maximum, swoon-inducing effect.

Joachim was the first important player to renounce thrill-seeking virtuosity as an end in itself, and to embrace the notion -- so widely held today that it risks being mistaken as timeless -- that interpreters should be faithful servants of composers. He championed the most elevated musical ideals, and missionized for a kind of lofty religion of beauty. Leopold Auer, a student of Joachim's who went on to become a violin patriarch of the 20th century, recalled that when he heard Joachim play, "I always felt as though he were a priest, thrilling his congregation with a sermon revealing the noblest moral beauties of a theme which could not help but interest all humanity."

It is difficult to grasp the depth of reverence that surrounded a figure like Joachim during his own lifetime, especially when viewed from the distance of today, when a violinist will hang-glide with a Stradivarius or pose topless on an album cover to get a sliver of media attention. Joachim played for Queen Victoria and Czar Nicholas and schmoozed with Bismarck. Late in his career, audience members paid homage with gift offerings, including fine art and manuscripts. But most telling of all was the respect he earned from the century's great composers: Mendelssohn championed the boy as a prodigy, Brahms turned to him desperately for advice on his Violin Concerto, Schumann referred to him as a "comrade-in-arms," Berlioz fawned ("so brilliant, and so pure"), and Wagner begged for permission to use the informal address of "Du." At the very end of his life, The New York Times maintained a death vigil from Berlin, running daily updates on his condition. One published Aug. 13, 1907 reads, "passed a very bad night, but is resting quietly today." At his funeral a few days later, the crown prince of Germany fainted. Joachim's death seemed to push the 19th century further into the past.

'Emanation from the heart'
Basic information on the violinist is not easy to come by, and until fairly recently, the most comprehensive source was a hagiographic work, nearly a century old, by his assistant Andreas Moser. Fortunately, Beatrix Borchard has written a 670-page double-biography of Joachim and his wife, published in German. It deserves to be widely translated.

Joseph Joachim was born into a poor Jewish family in Kittsee, Austria-Hungary, near present-day Bratislava. He moved as a young boy to the city of Pest, and later to Vienna, where he lived in the home of his most important teacher, Joseph Böhm, who had played quartets for Beethoven. When he was not yet a teenager, he was sent to Leipzig to meet Mendelssohn, who took him under his wing, playing music with him every Sunday and instilling in him a love of Bach and a broader world view that included a deep respect for a composer's intentions. When the time was right, Mendelssohn arranged for Joachim to travel to London, and there in 1844, the 12-year-old violinist made an appearance with the Philharmonic Society, which had to bend its own rule against presenting prodigies. Mendelssohn conducted the concert; Joachim played Beethoven's Violin Concerto.

Modern-day audiences know this piece as the most spiritually refined of the canonical concertos, but it did not start out that way. When its dedicatee, Franz Clement, premiered the work in 1806, he paused after the lofty opening movement and played a showpiece with his violin held upside down. The work was rarely played after Beethoven's death, but it became Joachim's calling card beginning with that London performance, which caused a sensation. "The hands and throats of the people must have ached from so much clapping and shouting," wrote an ecstatic Mendelssohn. Reviewing the same performance, a critic wrote the kind of review that Joachim would receive for most of his career, stating that "the intensity of his expression and the breadth of his tone proved that it was not merely mechanical display, but that it was an emanation from the heart -- that the mind and soul of the poet and musician were there, and it is just in these attributes that Joachim is distinguished from all former youthful prodigies . . .."

He eventually made his way to Weimar, the capital of the emerging German avant-garde, where he became concertmaster for Liszt and had an extended flirtation with the Liszt-Wagner-Berlioz camp before accepting a post at the Hanover court and declaring his support for the young Brahms, who came to represent the rival faction in the polarizing musical debates of the day. Like Mendelssohn before him, Joachim converted to Christianity, though he still strongly protested what he saw as anti-Semitic treatment of a colleague in the orchestra at Hanover. He married the famous singer Amalie Schneeweiss and spent his final years in Berlin, where he headed a new conservatory and focused increasingly on chamber music. By most accounts, he was not enamored of teaching technique, but his pupils included Leopold Auer, who in turn was the teacher of Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, and Mischa Elman, so in a way, the memory of his playing was passed down to the heart of 20th-century violin.

But what did Joachim actually sound like in his prime? It is a tantalizing question. Contemporaries wrote of his infinite variety of tonal colors and his brilliant use of rubato in phrasing. We do know that he spoke out against the overuse of vibrato, which he saw as reminiscent of "circus music." He was among the first to champion the solo Sonatas and Partitas of Bach as beautifully expressive music on their own terms, and his signature piece was the monumental Chaconne of Bach's D-minor Partita. He was also deeply admired as a quartet leader and as an exponent of Beethoven's late quartets. In his memoirs, the violinist Carl Flesch praised "the inner life of his performances, the nobility of his musical outlook," and his ability to project a composer's voice through his own. It was "a capacity for musical empathy that amounted to genius."

One can also look for hints of the violinist in the music he inspired. As Boris Schwarz has documented, the violinist was so intimately involved with the composition of Brahms's Violin Concerto that his musical personality may be inscribed into the work itself. Joachim was also a composer, and any image of him as a self-effacing anti-virtuoso must take into account his own "Hungarian" Concerto -- a fiendishly difficult work, fiery yet melodically rich, that has been completely forgotten and deserves to be heard. Flesch called it "the most outstanding creation that a violinist has ever written for his own instrument." Fortunately, a new recording is due out next year with the German violinist Christian Tetzlaff, a player who has implicitly embraced Joachim's example of technical brilliance put to the service of expressive purity.

Not fitting any mold
One might legitimately wonder, then, why Joachim's star has faded to such a degree that his centenary has barely registered in this country. (I have just learned that plans are underway for a modest Joachim lecture-seminar at Boston University this fall, but I know of no other events.) The simplest answers are the lack of recordings from his prime, the distance from any living memories of his playing, and the excitement generated by more sensual players like Ysaye and Kreisler. But beyond that, it is also known that in classical music, nationalism is a prime steward of reputations, and as a Hungarian Jew with Anglophilic sympathies who converted to Christianity and became an adopted German, Joachim did not fit neatly into any nationalist mold. Neither did he leave behind his own major school of famous violinists to directly preserve his reputation, in the way that Auer did in later decades.

Joachim's unwavering devotion to music as a pathway to a higher moral plane, while unique among major violinists of his day, was of a piece with broader Central European notions of personal edification through high culture. The promise of culture as a surrogate religion appealed to Jews in particular as a means of becoming fully participating members of German society. But these ideals have not aged well during the period that separates us from Joachim -- a time that forged new links between civilization and barbarism, in Central Europe most of all. To be sure, the hindsight granted us by the 20th century makes the innocence of his noble classicism feel distant indeed.

And yet despite all of this, Joachim's musical goals are still the ones that, when honored, make for the most powerful experiences in the concert hall. I love the thrill of blistering multi-octave runs and lightning spicatto as much as anyone else, but the most memorable performances are often the ones that have internalized the aspirations first set out by Joachim: that a soloist should be a humble messenger of the composer, that exhibitionism is not necessary to convey in one's playing a rich sense of inner life, and that a cherished piece of music, when properly rendered, can resonate with a truth that lies beyond the grasp of language.

More than a century ago, in his early 70s, Joachim actually recorded two movements of solo Bach (though alas not the Chaconne), a pair of Brahms's Hungarian Dances. There is a heavy surface hiss that lends the music a sense of dreamlike distance, and the old master's technique has clearly faded, his pitch is wobbly, and his tone is far from the marvel of purity that the historical record suggests. But there is a generosity of spirit and a nobility of vision that is unmistakable. These do not count as documents of his artistry at its best; they are more like fascinating artifacts, clouded windows into an instrument's ancestral past. Ultimately, there is no recovering the Joachim sound, but it's helpful to recall his approach to the violin, his liberation of its possibilities.

Generally speaking, soloists today can play louder, faster, and more in tune than their predecessors, and yet you often hear complaints about the lack of distinctiveness among contemporary players. But one thing that can instantly set apart a musician is a sense of historical memory in his or her playing. You can hear it in a single phrase of a Brahms sonata. It's not about an antiquated style of delivery, but a feeling in the bones for an art with its own proud performance tradition -- and a sense of not just what was gained in the forward march of technical progress on the instrument, but also what was lost.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at